In England someone is admitted to hospital with Covid “every 30 seconds”, Sir Simon Stevens the NHS England chief executive has said.
He warned the NHS has never been in a more precarious position.
But he also shed some positive light on the speed of the vaccination programme, saying 140 jabs are being delivered “every minute”.
Speaking to the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, he said: “The facts are very clear and I’m not going to sugar-coat them, hospitals are under extreme pressure and staff are under extreme pressure.
“Since Christmas Day we’ve seen another 15,000 increase in the inpatients in hospitals across England, that’s the equivalent of filling 30 hospitals full of coronavirus patients.
“Staggeringly, every thirty seconds across England another patient is being admitted to hospital with coronavirus.”
Sir Simon warned that the NHS is facing the most “unique” situation in its 72-year history.
He said: “It’s become glib to talk about this as the worst pandemic in a century, but that is clearly correct.
“We have got three-quarters more Covid inpatients now then we had in the April peak.
“Although we are seeing some promising signs of the steadying of the infection rates, the fact is they are still far too high and, among some age groups, still rising.”
But he also spoke positively about the vaccination programme, saying the NHS in England is jabbing “four times faster” than people are newly catching the virus.
He said: “We will start testing 24/7 in some hospitals over the course of the next 10 days.
“But we are at the moment vaccinating at about 140 jabs a minute and yesterday (Saturday), a quarter of a million people got their vaccinations on the NHS.
“I’m pretty confident by the time we get to the end of today, Sunday night, we will have perhaps done 1.5 million vaccinations this past week, that’s up from around a million the week before.”
It comes as more than 3.5 million people in the UK have now received their first dose of a vaccine, with some 324,000 doses administered in the space of 24 hours.
Sir Simon also predicted that lockdown could be eased “gradually” around spring and summer time.
However, he said this would depend on the effect of new variants of coronavirus.
Every adult in the UK will be offered a first dose of a coronavirus vaccine by September, Dominic Raab has pledged.
The Foreign Secretary said it would be “great” if the rollout could be faster but that the Government was working to the early autumn target.
He told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “Our target is by September to have offered all the adult population a first dose. If we can do it faster than that, great, but that’s the roadmap.”
Mr Raab’s pledge came amid dire warnings about the “extreme pressure” on the NHS – as it was revealed a coronavirus patient is admitted to hospital “every thirty seconds”.
Mr Raab said the Government hoped that 88% of those most at risk of dying from coronavirus would receive their first jab by the middle of February – with 99% by the early spring.
After then, he suggested, lockdown restrictions could be gradually eased – with a possible return to the tiered system.
“I think it is fair to say it won’t be a big bang, if you like, it will be done phased, possibly back through the tiered approach that we had before,” he told BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show.
When pressed on whether there would be enough vaccine supply for someone to get their second dose within 12 weeks, he said “we ought to” be able to deliver.